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Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin)

“…the whites will fill the country and they will dictate to us as they please. It is useless to dream that we can frighten them, that time has passed. Our only resource is our work, our industry, our farms.”
- Poundmaker, Plains Cree Chief

“…his bearing was so eminently dignified and his speech so well adapted to the occasion, as to impress every hearer with his earnestness and his views.”
- Robert Jefferson, the farm instructor on Poundmaker’s reserve

Cree chief Poundmaker Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin), the great Plains Cree chief known as a peacemaker and defender of his people, was born around 1842 in what is now central Saskatchewan. The son of a Nakoda (Assiniboine or Stoney) father and a Métis mother, he belonged to a prominent family. His maternal uncle, Big Child (Mistawasis), was a leading chief in the Eagle Hill area of present-day Alberta. After a peace treaty was made between the Blackfoot and the Cree in 1873, Crowfoot (Isapo-muxika), the leading Blackfoot chief, adopted Poundmaker after losing his own son. Poundmaker went to live with Crowfoot and was given the name Mayoki-yoh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs). When Poundmaker returned to the Cree, he brought with him a wealth of horses, giving him increased status and influence.

At the Treaty 6 negotiations in 1876, Poundmaker was a councillor or minor chief under Red Pheasant (Pihew-kamihkosit) of the River People band. When negotiations began, Poundmaker was elected to speak on behalf of some of the younger Cree chiefs who disagreed with the terms of the treaty. Unlike his uncle, Big Child, Poundmaker questioned the intent and terms of Treaty 6. Poundmaker claimed that, in exchange for their lands, the government should provide Aboriginal people and their descendants with farming instruction and assistance after the bison had disappeared. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris, the Treaty Commissioner, agreed to grant them more agricultural supplies and put in a disaster relief clause (see Negotiating a Better Future: The Revised Treaty Terms). Following the wishes of his band, Poundmaker accepted the terms of the treaty and signed it on 23 August 1876.

When Red Pheasant decided to settle on a reserve two years later, Poundmaker formed his own band. He continued to hunt the last herds of bison, but in 1879, he too, accepted a reserve and settled about forty miles west of Battleford in present-day Saskatchewan. He and his 182 followers continued to hunt whenever the opportunity arose. In 1881, Poundmaker was chosen to accompany the Marquess of Lorne, the Governor General of Canada, on his tour of the western prairies. The two developed a deep respect for each other and Poundmaker urged his people to keep the peace with the European settlers.

Over the next few years, Poundmaker’s band grew to include: Cree, Nakoda, and even a number of Métis (see The Leadership of Big Bear and Poundmaker). In 1883, the federal government’s cutbacks to the Indian Department, reduced the amount of rations allocated to the bands. The First Nations situation worsened, and Poundmaker found it increasingly difficult to maintain peace among his followers — particularly the younger warriors. In June of 1884, Big Bear, Little Pine, and other First Nations leaders assembled at Poundmaker’s reserve to discuss their dire situation. The chiefs planned a council at Battleford to discuss the idea of creating one large reserve for all Plains Cree. At the 1884 Thirst and Hunger Dances, however, a crisis developed that could have resulted in a massacre of Northwest Mounted Police. Bloodshed was prevented, but the council was disbanded to avert further trouble.

The outbreak of the Northwest Resistance in 1885 put an end to any hope for future councils. Needing more than ever to feed his people, Poundmaker travelled to Fort Battleford to obtain food rations from the Indian agent there. When the agent refused to leave the protection of the fort, Poundmaker was unable to prevent his young warriors from ransacking the empty village, which panicked settlers had abandoned following the Métis victory at the Battle of Duck Lake and the killing of a farm instructor by Nakoda warriors (see The Sacking of Fort Battleford). Poundmaker had lost control of his angry, starving warriors. He remained their nominal leader, but a warrior’s lodge erected in the camp had become the real centre of authority.

Intent on “punishing” Poundmaker for pillaging the village, a military force led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Dillon Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp. Otter’s men were forced to retreat, and Poundmaker — who had not taken part in the fighting — prevented his warriors from pursuing them. Had Poundmaker not stopped his warriors, it may have resulted in heavy losses for Otter’s soldiers.

After the attack, the Métis persuaded Poundmaker’s warriors to join Louis Riel’s forces at Batoche. Poundmaker made several attempts to leave, but the warriors would not permit it. He had no choice but to remain, and ensured that their white prisoners were protected and well treated. When news came that Riel’s forces had been defeated at the Battle of Batoche, Poundmaker sent word to Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton that he wanted to negotiate a peace settlement. But when Poundmaker and his followers arrived at Fort Battleford, they were immediately imprisoned.

In July of 1885, Poundmaker was put on trial for treason in Regina (see The Trial of Poundmaker). He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to three years in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Penitentiary. After serving only a year of his sentence, weak in spirit and in poor health, he was released. Four months later, while visiting his adopted father, Crowfoot, on the Blackfoot reserve he suffered a lung haemorrhage and died.

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